For a long time, Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) had been almost unknown and the limited existing publication of his work had been quite difficult to access. His writings, called by his compilers Collected Papers, were published only in 1931, almost 20 years after his death, and not in a complete way despite having been recognized as one of the most important forerunners of modern semiotic theory. Peirce was not only interested in semiotics, he was also the author of studies on the most diverse fields of knowledge: Mathematics, Logic, Physics, Chemistry and Philosophy (Zelis, Pulice, Manson, 2000).
Peirce belonged to what became known as the “Harvard Group” in the 1870s in the United States, a group of philosophers among whom were William James and Chancey Wrigth, interested in the consideration and status of science, an issue that ostensibly marked their developments.
One of his great interests was to distinguish the objective properties concerning the facts that we are forced to recognize logically as independent from our thinking. Pragmatism begins with Peirce .
Despite his training in the hard sciences, he ends up sliding from scientific thought to “the science of semiotics”. In this way, while in his courses on general linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure conceived semiology as a science to be constituted, defining as its objective the study of the life of signs in the heart of social life, Peirce affirmed, almost simultaneously, to be advanced in the task of clearing the territory to open the way to what he called semiotics, i.e., the doctrine of the essential nature and the fundamental varieties of the possible semiosis (cited by Zelis, Pulice, Manson, 2000).
In this way, just as in linguistics a subject is the subject of the structure, in Peirce a subject is the subject of the semiotic network: the sign occupies the place of the absent object, and just as de Saussure concern was how to isolate the language in order to turn it into an object of scientific analysis, for Peirce the concern is how the subject knows. Finally, as we see, although both share the same positivist environment, while Saussure absorbs it, Peirce rejects it (Bitonte, 2002).
For Peirce, we have no power of thought without signs and from this place, the process of inquiry can be characterized as a process that operates according to the manipulation of signs. Thus, thought is continuous, insofar as in the continuity of thought, thought-signs are in permanent flux. One thought leads to another and this in turn to another and so on (Peirce, 1965).
In that sense, Peirce Peirce asserted that it was incorrect to base knowledge on intuition; however, he did not refute the existence of intuition. According to him, we may have intuitions but, even if we do, we can never be sure what they are about.
However, and on the other hand, for Peirce, a sign is not only associated with other signs in thought, it is also connected with things, characterized by Peirce as the objects of the signs or the suppositum by which the sign stands. In turn, a sign cannot stand, but only by one of its aspects. This particular respect is what Peirce calls the ground or foundation of the sign. Peirce conceives the ground as an object of the immediate consciousness that determines the constitution of the sign.
A sign or representamen is something which stands for someone for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses someone, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign or may be a more developed sign. This signs it creates, I call the intepretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen (Peirce, 1965, p. 228).
The ground would be a general quality or attribute which is different from the predicate we use in perceptual judgment. The ground is the element that makes possible the agreement between perceptual judgment and that which perceptual judgment refers to. If the judgment refers to the object, the ground is needed to determine which aspect of the object the judgment refers to (Vallejos, 1999).
In this way, Peirce presents a progressive chain of logical interpretants that are moving away from the first object represented. Thus, each substitution originates a set of otherness that makes it be another and at some point that semiotic object. This occurs because the representamen is never in the place of its object in all its vastness, but with respect to some kind of substitutive possibility, the “foundation” or “ground”.
With Peirce we have a triadic scheme. In this scheme there is a step from observational experience to concept and, in that sense, the concept is an element that allows us to interpret the world. So, for Peirce, no sign refers to the “real thing”, but every sign necessarily refers to another sign.
The triadic relationship between the object, the ground and the representamen is what makes it possible to create another sign in the mind of the interpreter. This other sign is called by Peirce the interpretant of the initial sign. Now, we can characterize the inference as the transit from a sign constituted in the relation object, ground and representamen to its interpretant.
Now, the sign, when completed in the mind of the interpretant, always represents something different from itself. This plurality of interpretations makes Peirce propose an infinite semiosis, in which the sign triad supposes that each element of the sign is also a sign, which opens infinitely (Peirce, 1986).
From the above, it emerges Lacan interest in the Peircean sign. The idea that “a sign, or representamen, is something that stands to somebody, for something, in some aspect or disposition” (Peirce, 1986, p. 22). But also the proposal of an infinite semiosis and the impossible, which will generate productivity in the later Lacan.
We know that at this stage of Lacan work, he postulates the logic of the Not-all and the tables of sexuation. We also know of the passage from matheme to the knots in order to account for the complexity of the unconscious. We will see now how this passage occurs in line with the triadic sign and how Lacan appropriates it starting from emphasizing the real to arrive at its enunciation: “the signifier is the sign of the subject” (Lacan, 1972-73 , p. 171), in this kind of return to Peirce.
Lacan introduces for first time the Borromean knot on 9th of February, 1972, in the context of his Seminar XIX …ou pire. There, he postulates a knot of three circles where two of them are not knotted together and they are only supported by the third.
In the same Seminar, Lacan points out that a sign has nothing to do with a signifier. A sign is always the sign of a subject (Lacan, 1971-72 ).
During his Seminar XX Lacan invites linguist François Recanati, who will relate the triadic logic with infinite insistence, while identifying aspects of Peirce’s cosmological and mathematical thought in relation to the concepts of “interpretant” and “object”.
This interpretation of the Peircean text from Recanati is what most interests Lacan. That is, the relation between representamen and interpretant, which makes possible the recognition of the laws according to which a sign gives origin to another sign, producing that infinite semiosis, which Lacan translates as existence is insistence.
These production grammars will lead Lacan to make a change, as we saw, in Seminar XX (1972-73 ) regarding the first pairs of signifiers. From now on, he will present signifier One, S1, the written letter that is written without any meaning effect. In this way, there will appear an S1 isolated and separated from the signifying chain. For that reason, the “written” will not belong to the same register as the signifier.
In 1972, in his text L’Etourdit, he emphasizes the fact that the Real is impossible. This means that symbolization of the Real, understood as the reduction of the Real to the Symbolic, is taken to the limit. Thus, the impossible is a term only conceivable from the Symbolic, if there is to be Real it is necessary there be a demonstrative significant articulation founded on non-existence, presenting a sort of impasse. The Real cannot be defined outside the signifying articulation (Miller, 1999). Symbolization not only does not annul jouissance, but sustains it (Miller, 1998).
This issue is what calls into question the category of signifier and what leads Lacan to promote the category of the letter, and not only the letters of logic but also the letters (lettres) that are sent (Miller, 1999).
But, in addition, as we had seen, at first Lacan takes the definition of Peirce’s sign: “A sign represents something for someone” and in opposition to this definition he introduces his definition of signifier as that which represents a subject for another signifier. In this way, he maintained the structure of representation. But, “someone”, Miller points out (1999I), was not its recipient, it was not the bond between sign and what it represents. Here, “someone was no more than a subject transported in the chain, only a signifier or set of signifiers, making the signifying articulation relevant. We will now see that Lacan will change his mind and say: “a signifier is the sign of the subject”. But, why does he change his mind?
A key text for getting a response is Television (1973 ), where he uses the term “sign” to refer to the “symptom”, arguing that it is not enough to state that symptom only has a signifying structure, but that there is also something of the body at stake. Therefore, the symptom cannot be completely reabsorbed into the signifier. He will not only affirm that “the unconscious is structured as a language”, but he will now modify his definition of the unconscious to say that there is a relationship between the effect of meaning and the production of jouissance. Lacan will say: “The sign is my issue”. Thus, we have that there will be discourse when there is a distinction between the effect of meaning and the production of jouissance, when there is a distinction between truth and real (Miller, 2000):
[The truth] every time it is affirmed as an ideal whose support can be the word, is not an easy thing to reach […]. The whole truth is what cannot be said. It can only be said on condition that it is not taken to the extreme, that it is only said half-truth. (Lacan, 1972-1973, p. 110)
That real of which symptom is made, which is not easy to be achieved and which is now defined as sign, will lead Lacan to say in Autocomentario (1973):
I would like psychoanalysts to know that everything must lead them to the solid support they have in the sign and that they must not forget that the symptom is a knot of signs. Since the sign makes knots; […] it is precisely because the knots – as I tried several times to look into in my seminar – are something absolutely capital. (Lacan, 1973, p.18)
This new position, added to his incorporation of the knots, is what leads Lacan to question the category of signifier and what takes him to promote the category of the letter. The letter borne is jouissance of the Other (Lacan, 1972-73 ).
Lacan then stops arguing that what cures the symptom is meaning (1953 ), and he says that psychoanalysis does not operate at the level of meaning (1973). At the core of the symptom there is always a misunderstanding, a “nonsense”, a meaningless signifier. He calls this meaningless signifier a sign. Miller proposes to consider that Peirce definition is appropriate for the Lacanian sign insofar as it is one, presented in the form of a unity that is susceptible of a separate absolute in relation to someone who deciphers it.
Now, unlike the theory of signifier, language not only has an effect of signification but also has an effect of jouissance that forces the subject to the eternal return of the same sign, the letter being the sign considered in its materiality as a distinct object of the signifying chain.
Therefore, Lacan will say in Seminar XX that the “signifier is foolish” (1972-73 , p. 30) because meaning and all the significations are elsewhere, remaining there, without much to tell us. On the other hand, the letter has a hidden meaning.
The letter, Lacan also argues, is impossible to read. If there are no signifiers in play, it implies an x. In the place of signification, there is something, but we don’t know what it is, so this real of the letter limits the interpretation.
The letter refers to jouissance, insofar as property of a living body, and jouissance redirects to the S1. Jouissance, first of all, is situated in one’s own body and it is always one’s own body that enjoys it. For this reason, Lacan plays, from the misunderstanding, with the title of his seminar that he names Encore, which sounds the same as en corps . Thus, he will say: “The function I assign to the letter is that which makes the letter analogous to a seed” (Lacan, 1972-73, p. 118), giving us the idea of the reproduction of the letter, insofar as living, and the existence of jouissance provided that life is presented in the form of a living body. Although this condition of jouissance is not enough, another condition is necessary, which is that of the signifier, that is, the signifier as cause of jouissance (Lacan, 1972-73 ).
This means that the living becomes subject also through the signifier, it is made of lack-of-being, which is what divides it. For this reason, Lacan replaces the term subject with parlêtre, which is the opposite of lack-of-being. The parlêtre is the subject plus the body, it is the subject plus the enjoying substance (Miller, 1998).
Thus, one version of this jouissance will be phallic, and the other will be the word (blah-blah-blah) that is not addressed to anyone, it ignores the Other. And if by speaking it enjoys, communication ceases to be a priority.
There is jouissance of lalangue, as long as the subject has a body. For this reason, Lacan brings the body into psychoanalysis, in the same way that he brings in the jouissance of the word. The parlêtre enjoys when it speaks (Miller, 1998).
Being is the being of the speaker, no longer it is the subjective truth. The supposition in this period is a body, because a body is necessary to enjoy, by speaking it enjoys, the meaning is jouissance (jouis-sense) (Lacan, 1971-72 ).
But, in addition, this moment is founded on no relation, and this also concerns the disjunction of signifier and signified, disjunction of jouissance and the Other, of man and woman. Thus, all those terms that formerly assured the conjunction: the Other, the Name of the Father, the phallus, and that appeared as primordial, are now reduced to connectors (Miller, 2000).
For Miller, the concept of no relation is opposed to that of structure, since the former takes as data a number of relations, defined as articulation, exemplified with the structural minimum S1-S2. That is to say, it is the formulation of the relation to which the quality of being real is attributed, with the category of what is necessary, that is, what does not cease to be written (Lacan, 1972-73 ). With the structure, not only the articulation S1-S2 was admitted as given, but also the Other as prescriber of the conditions of experience, the paternal metaphor, the nodal articulation of the structuring Oedipus and of the given relation as not ceasing to be written.
The no relation calls into question, mainly, the relevance of operating on jouissance from the word, from the meaning. Therefore, this new perspective starts from sustaining that there is no sexual relation, but there is jouissance, and there is jouissance insofar as property of a living body, a body that speaks. This implies, as we said, the disjunction of jouissance and the Other, especially understood as a signifying system. Thus, it brings forth the Other from the Other with the modality of the One, as true Other from the Other. Jouissance, as we also said, leads to a single S1, separated from the Other, to a meaningless assignable signifier. This jouissance One ignores the Other. In Seminar XIX (1971-72 ) Lacan will say that he will give One the value of that in which his discourse consists and it consists, insofar as it is that value that hinders sexual intercourse, that is, phallic jouissance.
Thus, if the Saussurian pair had allowed Lacan the proposal of writing in the sense of the cipher S1-S2, with truth value and the possibility of writing the relationship between signifier and object , in Introduction to the German Edition of the Écrits (Lacan, 1973 ) he would replace it with another binary: sign and meaning. A sign, as Peirce said, is for someone and it is in this point that meaning can be taken.
Lacan then makes a theoretical construction without using the difference between signifier and signified, replacing it with the sign and meaning pair. At the same time, when reflecting on the escape of meaning, he will devalue the term signifier because it is the object of linguistics and not of psychoanalysis (Miller, 2003).
In this way, in this new proposal, the sign is something to be deciphered that also carries a meaning. For this reason, Lacan will say that the function of the cipher is fundamental there. It is what designates the sign as sign. And it is necessary that, through deciphering, the succession of signs, which at the beginning are not understood, reveal a meaning. The analyst thus defines himself from that experience that allows him to distinguish sign from meaning. The formations of the unconscious, as Lacan called them, demonstrate their structure by the fact of being decipherable. That which is sign will be ciphered and deciphered by the analysand and the meaning will be interpreted by someone, that is why it is “something for someone”. In this way, just as the jouissance in a cure must be questioned, “meaning is decided”. That is why a sign is something to be deciphered. Unlike the signifier, the sign is always marked by a presence, “there is no smoke without fire”, Lacan points out. The sign is a sign of a presence that someone is there, of an incarnated presence. When there is a sign, there is someone, unlike the signifier that is articulated to another signifier to represent a subject. But when there is a subject it does not mean that there is someone, insofar as a subject is an effect of signification. That is why, for Lacan, love is articulated to the sign, since love consists in giving what one does not have, it is the most difficult of the gifts (Solano Suarez, 2003).
In this sense, Miller (2003) argues that it is as if in the dimension of language, linguistics had taken the significant/signified pair to reason about the effects of signification, but the problem of following that path is what cannot be grasped since there is production of jouissance in language.
Substituting the signifier/signified pair by the sign/meaning pair is returning on this side of the difference of signifier-signified, which allows to think about the effects of signification but independently of its value of sexual jouissance. It is a way of “truncating” language, if we think of it from its lost object, that is, meaning. Therefore, we find that Lacan restores as first use of the sign, sexual jouissance and not as it had been for the signifier, that its first use was the effect of meaning (Miller, 2003).
In turn, Lacan —in his Seminar XXIII— will continue to delve into the Borromean knot, from which he will propose the three registers (real, symbolic and imaginary) as equivalent. It is from the knots that Lacan re-establishes the triadic scheme. The knot is made of three circles, equivalent and treated in the same plane. In this way, this new turn is produced within the framework of his last theoretical production.
Miller considers that this last movement in Lacan is what leads him to define the signifier as a sign, a formula that belies his former definition of signifier, that Lacan will present as canonical. Thus, as we have said, from now on Lacan will no longer oppose the meaning to the signifier, but to the sign.
It is in the Seminar XXIII The sinthome (1975-6 ) that he will replace Saussure’s binary signifier S1, S2, with Peirce’s triadic sign, implied in a triadic logic that Lacan had been proposing since 1953, when he first posited the three registers.
Peirce reappears. Not only Lacan will no longer say “the signifier represents jouissance for another signifier,” as he argued in Seminar XVII The Reverse of Psychoanalysis, but he will now return to it in another way, in the sense that in Lacan we will find the formula: “The signifier is the sign of the subject” (1976-77). That is to say, Lacan will now define the signifier as a sign and it can be a sign because there is an unconscious that cohabits with lalangue. The sign is that which in the parlêtre carries of its unconscious.
Then, meaning, which could not be trapped with the Saussurean signifier, to stop it and make it true, is recognized as jouissance-meaning impossible to stop because it flows. Now, with this return to Peirce, meaning is regulated, decided. The subject has its implication in the Other, it becomes sign, with its three faces from a triadic logic, since the subject as such is an imaginary supposition.
The analytical interpretation will be based on misunderstanding and nonsense. With this type of interpretation, the body is moved by way of perplexity and not so much by way of elaboration. It is a semantic vibration.
To conclude, the reformulation of the concept of the unconscious and, therefore, the proposal of a psychoanalysis different to that of Freud’s, based on the passage from a binary to a triadic logic, has consequences in the clinic. In the first case, a clinic handled with a logic of the signifier making its phenomena depend from the dominant function of only one signifier, the Name of the Father. This implied that the symptoms referred to this form alone, regardless of their autonomy concerning the function of the Other. In this logic, where the action of the structure that omits the position of the subject, as a response to the real and as a choice over jouissance, is highlighted, the clinic is structured around the Other and the inheritance of the Father as carrier of the phallus. On the other hand, the triadic logic and the passage to the relation of the subject with the nonsense signifier, with the sign, better account for the phenomena of jouissance. This makes it possible to think of the One that gives rise to a variety of jouissance and symptoms.
It is from this journey and location of the epistemic passage in Lacan around the concept of sign, and the productivity it generates throughout his teaching, that I have tried to capture something of this impossible category. A writing effort regarding its appropriation and usefulness in the Lacanian invention, with the hope of having been able, at least, to skirt along one of the most difficult notions to define.